Since the Time of Christ, Sacred Tradition
has Guided and Continues to Guide Us
By Lucas Pollice
The Why Catholic? process of adult catechesis and evangelization is off to an outstanding start in the Diocese. Literally thousands of Catholics across our vast 24,000 square mile Diocese of Fort Worth have been meeting weekly to study, ponder, and live out more deeply the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, the 90 minutes each week only scratches the surface of some enormous and important topics such as the Holy Trinity, Faith, and Divine Revelation. Therefore, my next several articles are going to be “digging deeper” into some of these topics for further understanding and reflection.
One of the topics I have already heard that people really appreciated but had many more questions about was Lesson Two on Divine Revelation and how Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, make up the “braid” of Christ’s revelation as handed on throughout the centuries. This issue, I would like to focus on Sacred Tradition, and next issue we will look more deeply at Sacred Scripture.
DIVINE REVELATION HANDED ON THROUGH SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION
As the New Testament Church began to emerge and grow, the teaching of the apostles was handed on in two ways: 1) “Orally by the apostles who handed on by the spoken word of their preaching, by their example, by the institutions they established, and what they had received [from Christ]” (CCC, 76). We call this Sacred Tradition. 2) “In writing by the apostles or other men associated with the apostles, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (CCC, 76). We call this Sacred Scripture or the New Testament of the Bible.
St. Paul also explains how the revelation of Christ is handed on: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Here we clearly see the means through which the sacred deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles and their successors is transmitted to each generation: a teaching office (“that you were taught”), Sacred Tradition (“by oral statement”), and Sacred Scripture (“or by a letter of ours”).
Sacred Tradition is the living witness and presence of Christ, which was entrusted to the apostles and their successors through their authoritative teaching, their example, and the institutions they established. Sacred Tradition is none other than Christ himself as handed on throughout history (tradition means “to carry across”). This oral Tradition continues to be passed on primarily through apostolic succession, that is, through the teachings of the pope and the bishops united to him. Tradition is also handed on through other various ways through the life and ministry of the Church. One may ask, what exactly is this Sacred Tradition, and where do we find it lived and articulated?
TRADITION IS HANDED ON THROUGH APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION
Tradition is passed on through the teaching and governing of the successors of Peter and the apostles, the pope and the bishops, who through apostolic succession have been given the authority to teach and govern by Christ himself. This
teaching office has continued in an unbroken line of authority even to this day. The pope and the bishops, as the present day successors of the apostles, are called the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church (magistra in Latin means teacher). They have the responsibility of seeing that the sacred deposit of faith left to us by Christ and handed on through Tradition and Scripture is preserved, defended, and handed on in its fullness to all generations until the end of time. As Vatican II states:
And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 THESS. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see JUDE 1:3) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.
— Constitution on DivineThus, the pope and the bishops do not have the authority to invent new doctrine or to delete or change what has been entrusted to them. Their authority comes from Christ Himself who commands them to faithfully hand on, untarnished and complete, all that He taught them and commanded them.
TRADITION IS ALSO PASSED ON IN THE VERY LIFE OF THE CHURCH
Sacred Tradition is also passed on through the lives and faith of all the faithful who are in alignment with the teachings of the Church. This is called the sensus fi dei, or the sense of the faithful. Tradition lies within the life of faith lived out in each member of the Church as we continuously ponder and live out, in obedience to the Magisterium of the Church, all that Christ has given to us and commanded of us. Thus, the richness of the Tradition of the Church can be found in the simple prayer and faith of the ordinary person. Therefore, all of us have the role and responsibility, to faithfully hand on and bear witness to the truth of Christ in our own lives. The Why Catholic? process is a perfect example of all of us together, in union with the offi cial and authoritative teaching of the Church, handing on the faith and living it out more richly.
TRADITION IS ALSO PASSED ON THROUGH THE LITURGICAL LIFE OF THE CHURCH
Lex orandi, lex credendi: “The law of prayer is the law of faith.” The liturgy is an important element of Sacred Tradition, because the Church is continuously pondering and meditating upon the mysteries of Christ and celebrating the mighty works of God accomplished in Christ. It is similar to when our families gather for feasts and holidays to celebrate, ponder, and hand on family traditions and memories. Since the Church is the family of Christ, when we come together in the liturgy to celebrate God’s salvation in Christ, we also encounter and hand on the Tradition of the Church through our prayers and worship. Many of the Church’s teachings are seen professed and explicitly believed in the liturgy far before they were defined by the Church and in some cases even committed to writing in Sacred Scripture. For example, some of the beautiful teachings on the nature of Christ in the writings of St. Paul are liturgical texts or hymns that were already being expressed and believed in the very early liturgies of the Church.
SACRED TRADITION IS A LIVING TRADITION
Sacred Tradition is a living Tradition, not one that is stagnant. While the fundamental truths of Sacred Tradition revealed by Christ and entrusted to the Church do not change, they do unfold over time as the Church continues to ponder and live out its mysteries. This is a crucial point. While doctrine does not change, it does develop as the Church better grasps its meaning. Fundamentalism is a reaction to the living Tradition of the Church; it sees Tradition as dead or stagnant. It is the Magisterium, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which defends, protects, interprets, and applies the deposit of faith to each generation. It is through this handing on of Christ himself that the Church comes to have a better grasp of what Christ revealed. As Vatican II explains:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see LUKE 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.
— Constitution on DivineLucas Pollice is director of Catechesis and Adult Faith Formation and RCIA for the diocese. Lucas holds a degree in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and has a master’s degree in theological studies from the Institute for Pastoral Theology of Ave Maria University. He is an adjunct professor of theology with the Cardinal Newman Institute in Fort Worth. Lucas and his wife, Mary, have fi ve children, Cecilia, Nicholas, Timothy, Christian, and Julia.
This article first appeared in the North Texas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Worth, copyright © 2009, Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.
Click to learn more about Why Catholic?/¿Por qué ser Católico?
About RENEW International RENEW International is a canonically-recognized Catholic organization based in Plainfield, NJ, in the Archdiocese of Newark. RENEW International fosters spiritual renewal in the Catholic tradition by empowering individuals and communities to encounter God in everyday life, deepen and share faith, and connect faith with action. Since 1980 RENEW International has revitalized parish life in over 150 dioceses in the United States, touching the lives of 25 million people through its renewal processes. RENEW International also reaches many thousands outside the United States, having served people in 23 countries, across six continents and in 44 languages.